Politics & Policy

The Research Planned Parenthood Is Providing Organs for Is Increasingly Outdated, Researchers Say

(Jan Bruder/Dreamstime)

In the aftermath of the release of the Center for Medical Progress’s hidden-camera video showing a Planned Parenthood official, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, touting the ability and willingness of the abortion provider to harvest fetal tissue — hearts, lungs, and “always as many intact livers as possible” — two questions come to mind: What kinds of research require the fetal body parts that Planned Parenthood is supplying? And are these tissues harvested from aborted fetuses actually necessary for the advancement of the research?

Some scientists are especially “interested in doing research with fetal liver because it’s a rich source of stem cells,” which can have important therapeutic applications, says Dr. David Prentice, research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a pro-life group, and Indiana University stem-cell specialist. “At that point in your life while you’re in the womb, from about eight weeks after conception up to about 20 to 24 weeks, the fetal liver is very rich in stem cells. They’re the kinds of stem cells that you would find in bone marrow,” Prentice says.

But, he says, the dubiously ethical practice isn’t nearly as important or useful as it used to be. “Frankly,” he says, “there is no advantage, nowadays, in fetal stem cells over adult cells. The science has matured.”

Fetal stem cells can be used in fields ranging from Parkinson’s disease treatments to diabetes research, but Prentice says the focus on fetal stem cells is based on “an older idea that they will tend to grow more.”

“It’s a holdover from, frankly, the 1960s and 70s when people were just learning how to grow cells in the lab and it was easier at that stage to grow fetal tissue,” he says.

If the state of the science says stem cells harvested from fetal tissue are unnecessary, why is there so much demand?

“In fact, the fetal cells, because they tend to grow more, tend to be more dangerous,” Prentice tells NR. “There’s the possibility of producing tumors, which have been seen in some patients. There’s the possibility of producing random tissues instead of a desired tissue. So it’s not as good as a stem-cell source as adult [stem cells].”

If the state of the science says stem cells harvested from fetal tissue are unnecessary, why is there so much demand?

Dr. Samuel Cohen, a University of Nebraska microbiologist, testified before Congress in 2009 that “obtaining cells from legally obtained abortions for potentially life-saving purposes is ethically permissible and indeed ethically necessary.”

“The study of fetal tissue has already led to major discoveries in human health and has the potential to continue to benefit mankind,” Cohen said, before concluding that he was “confident that we can protect against abuses in the fetal tissue supply arena while also protecting promising life-saving research.”

Brendan Foht, assistant editor at the New Atlantis, a conservative science and technology journal, who’s covered the stem-cell debate for years, suggests to NR that there doesn’t seem to be an ethical necessity here. “There are many alternative sources of stem cells that hold comparable promise to fetal and embryonic tissue without raising the same ethical problems,” he says.

For instance, “umbilical-cord blood is a rich source of stem cells that can be stored and cultured for extended periods, and can be used for a wide variety of therapeutic purposes,” Foht says.

Prentice sees two reasons for the continued focus on fetal stem cells among some in the research community: “Ideologically they don’t see any problem with using tissue harvested from abortion,” he says, although the ethical concerns about using aborted fetal tissue are widespread, and not just confined to passionate pro-lifers.

“Adult stem cells are the gold standard. And virtually all success — over a million patients now — is due to adult stem cells.”

“The other part of it,” he says, “is that I don’t think they have caught on with the more recent science. They are still working off this mindset of easier growing tissue, faster growing tissue and that’s why they’re looking for fetal rather than adult stem cells.”

“If you look at the published results, whether it’s adult stem cells and then comparing to fetal stem cells or to embryonic stem cells, when we talk about treating patients, adult stem cells are the gold standard,” Prentice continues. “And virtually all success — over a million patients now — is due to adult stem cells.”

Is it possible the researchers using fetal stem cells don’t know the likely provenance of the tissue—that they’re just trying to use stem cells, period?

Dr. Theresa Deisher, president of Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute, a group dedicated to investigating the use of fetal tissue, finds that unlikely.

“They would be aware of the source and this type of research requires ongoing delivery of fresh tissue,” Deisher tells NR.

Prentice agrees: “I think it would be very unlikely for them not to know the source of the tissue. In most cases they are specifically after fetal cells — that’s what they’re requesting from these companies. They see this as an ongoing need for fresh cells and fresh tissue and that’s when they then turn to suppliers like StemExpress, [which] was mentioned in the video.”

#related#StemExpress seems to have marketed itself as a revenue opportunity for abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood. In the hidden-camera footage, Nucatola, the Planned Parenthood official, tells the actors posing as buyers for a company looking into the purchase of fetal body parts, that “we were approached by StemExpress to do the same thing. One of the northern California affiliates said, ‘we’re working with these people, we love them, we think every affiliate should work with them.’”

“And so we had a conversation, and said you know, what do you think, we’ll just go out and find out all the people that are doing this and present everybody with a menu,” Nucatola continued.

The “menu” being, of course, a reference to the litany of body parts ready for harvesting from aborted fetus.

Just how far down the path toward complete dehumanization of fetal tissue for research purposes have we gone? Plenty far, says Deisher.

There are simply too many ethical problems raised by the use of fetal tissue for therapy or research, Deisher says. “We need to shut that box again.” 

Thankfully, if researchers like Prentice are right, new science may mean we can do so without imperiling much important work at all.

— Mark Antonio Wright is an intern at National Review.

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